Revolt In The Pueblos


Since the people’s welfare and good fortune demanded harmonious attunement to the spirit world around them, Pueblo society was tightly knit and rigidly conformist. Most towns were headed by a single leader who served for life, and all the people under him were divided into cults and secret societies, each of which had its own duties and sacred kiva. Every cult, in turn, had a head man who was in charge of its ceremonial activities. Only men were allowed inside the kivas, which were sometimes underground but more often were built above ground like round towers and entered by ladders dropped to the interior from a hatch in the roof. Inside the chambers, the cult leaders kept their fetishes and other sacred objects, including brilliantly painted and feathered masks and costumes for kachina dances—group prayers in which the wearers of the masks believed they possessed the spirits and powers of the gods they impersonated.

At the times of such dances, the men of a cult disappeared into their kiva, and when they came crowding back up the ladder and over the roof, wearing their great masks, the people of the pueblo participated with them, certain that the gods had come to town from the sacred lake through the passageway in the kiva. The most important dance was that of the rain gods, the givers of life to the people of the desert, and there was no deception involved in their appearance because everyone, including the portrayers of the gods, understood that the masks actually conveyed their spirits. Nevertheless, the mysteries attending the arrival of the gods inside the kivas could not be witnessed by women or children.

Before the boys of a pueblo were nine years old, they were taken into the secret chambers and brought face to face with the masked kachinas, who proceeded to whip them furiously, trying to drive the badness out of them and prepare them for their important future roles. At adolescence, the boys were again given a lashing in the kivas, but this time the kachinas suddenly unmasked in front of them and, threatening quick punishment if they failed to keep the secret, showed them that after all it was the real men of the village who turned miraculously into gods when they put on the masks. After this terrifying initiation, the youths received long training in the rituals and secrets of the cult and, when they married, were finally ready to become kachinas themselves.

In addition to the cults, each pueblo’s secret societies were charged with specific community functions, such as the prosecution of defensive warfare, the hunting of game, the appointment of nonreligious officers, and the training of masked clowns who cavorted in the ceremonial dances and served as town disciplinarians Martians by raffishly ridiculing, censuring, or whipping those who had been guilty of offensive behavior. There were also important curing societies, composed of powerful doctors who kept watch over a pueblo for the evil spirits that brought sickness and death to their people. As recipients of the great knowledge of the medicine men of the spirit world, the doctors were believed able to recognize and do battle with witches that no one else could even see. They used their gifts to unmask the invisible evildoers, and with prayers, chants, and mystic paintings of colored corn meal, which they sprinkled on the ground in curative designs, worked hard to charm away the spirits and save their patients. The medicine men, of whom Popé was one, were the people’s daily guardians of life and health, and their unique position, constructed on centuries of faith, often gave them influence in political as well as medical matters.

Though possibly past their cultural peak, the people of the pueblos were suddenly faced in the sixteenth century by two developments that threatened their future. From the north there appeared dangerous Ute marauders and wandering bands of fierce Apache hunters, who had left their Athapascan relatives in Canada not long before and had migrated to the Southwest, where they began to harass the peaceful and productive towns of the Pueblos. Though their numbers and power gradually increased, the ultimate threat of these nonagricultural nomads was abruptly eclipsed by another invader who appeared without warning from the south and eventually cut short with finality all chance of further Pueblo development.


The discovery of the Pueblos by the Spaniards, though an inevitable consequence of their conquest of Mexico in 1521, stemmed from the reports of Cabeza de Vaca, who had wandered through the Southwest in the 1530’s ( see “The Ordeal of Cabeza de Vaca,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, December, 1960). His tales of fabulous new lands that lay just to the north of his route had fired the imaginations of the Spaniards, and in 1539, the first Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, selected a Franciscan, Fray Marcos de Niza, to reconnoiter the northern territory to discover if it was, indeed, another fabulously rich native kingdom, worthy of a new expedition of conquest.